By MARGARET SHUTTLEWORTH
LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint former Councilman Herb Wesson to represent the city’s 10th district, as a replacement for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended after being indicted in a federal corruption case. It is unclear if he will be paid while serving.
Wesson will hold the position through Dec. 31 unless Ridley-Thomas is acquitted or the charges against him are dropped.
“With over 30 years in public service representing the residents of Council District 10, there is no better choice at this time than former council member Herb Wesson,” Council President Nury Martinez said after announcing her motion to appoint Wesson on Wednesday.
“Mr. Wesson cares deeply about the communities he represents and knows the district better than anyone. The constituents of Council District 10 need a voting member who understands their community to represent them within Council Chambers.”
Wesson is termed out of seeking election to the City Council because he represented the 10th District from 2005 to December 2020. He also served as the president of the council before Martinez, from 2012 to 2020.
Councilman Mike Bonin sought to delay the vote on the appointment until after the City Council receives a detailed report on the full range of available scenarios, including a public report from the city attorney on eligibility requirements for potential appointments and a report from the city attorney, city clerk and chief legislative analyst on steps, costs and legality of holding a special election for Council District 10 residents to pick their own temporary council member.
Bonin’s amendment to receive the reports was adopted by the council Tuesday, however, an amendment to delay the vote by one week until after the reports are received fell one vote short and was not adopted.
The vote to appoint Wesson as a temporary replacement was adopted unanimously.
Behind the scenes, the Empowerment Congress [founded by Ridley-Thomas] was frantically emailing its database urging residents to call in to thwart Wesson’s appointment.
On Tuesday, several people called into the City Council meeting pushing for Wesson to be appointed to represent the district, noting that residents have not had a voting representative since Ridley-Thomas’ suspension on Oct. 20.
A woman who identified herself as Lillian Wilson, “a stakeholder in the district for 45-plus years,” urged the City Council to vote immediately to appoint Wesson, saying “we’ve been without representation for four months and we don’t want this to go on another six to 12 months, we need representation, we need a vote at the table.”
Damien Goodmon, who is a board member for the Downtown Crenshaw Rising project — a movement to buy the Crenshaw Mall and redevelop it for the community — also called in to urge Wesson’s appointment, saying the district’s lack of representation has impacted progress on major issues. He added that Wesson’s appointment would “remain consistent with the precedent set by this council when Mitch Englander stepped down and the previous council member was put in Englander’s seat.”
Former Councilman Greig Smith, who represented Council District 12 from 2003 to 2011, represented the district again from January to August 2019 after Englander vacated the seat in December 2018 to take a job with the Oak View Group, a global sports and entertainment advisory, development and investment company. Smith at the time was eligible for another term on the City Council after opting to not run for a third term.
While some in the community have pushed for Wesson to be appointed to the seat, others have expressed their view that suspending Ridley-Thomas from the City Council before a trial goes against the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
On Friday, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California filed a lawsuit aimed at getting Ridley-Thomas reinstated on the City Council, alleging that “the decision to suspend (Ridley-Thomas) contravenes the bedrock presumption of innocence guaranteed under California law.”
Ridley-Thomas was executive director of the organization’s Greater Los Angeles chapter from 1981-1991.
Pastor William Smart, SCLC of Southern California’s president, told City News Service Friday afternoon that his position is that Ridley-Thomas’ suspension was “morally wrong, politically indefensible and patently illegal.”
“We will not accept an unelected being imposed on us as a community …we operate, as SCLC, in the 10th District and I live in the 10th District. We believe that the councilman was ousted out and we want him to get his position back,” he said.
In a statement to City News Service last week, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney Michael Proctor opposed the appointment of Wesson, calling it “premature” and “anti-democratic.”
“Since day one, Mark Ridley-Thomas has pledged his commitment to continue serving the constituents of District 10. The council president’s `process’ has lacked transparency, inclusivity or input from the voters. Those voters are thus being deprived of their first-order constitutional rights of representation. Mark Ridley-Thomas’ concern is for those constituents — and an appointed representative beholden to Nury Martinez does not resolve this denial of representation.”
The 10th District has been overseen by caretaker Karly Katona, who does not have voting authority. The City Council’s vote to suspend Ridley- Thomas passed with three council members in opposition: Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Councilman Mike Bonin and Councilman Curren Price. Price said before the vote that his office had been inundated with calls of support for Ridley-Thomas from South L.A. residents.
The trial for Ridley-Thomas and former dean of the USC School of Social Work Marilyn Flynn is tentatively set to begin Aug. 9. The defendants are charged in a 20-count indictment alleging a secret deal whereby Ridley- Thomas — when he was a member of the county Board of Supervisors — agreed to steer county money to the university in return for admitting his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas into graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.
Flynn allegedly arranged to funnel a $100,000 donation from Ridley- Thomas’ campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by his son, a former member of the Assembly. The donation prompted an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles that remains open, prosecutors said.
In exchange, the indictment contends, Ridley-Thomas supported county contracts involving the School of Social Work, including lucrative deals to provide services to the county Department of Children and Family Services and Probation Department, as well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health that would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue.
Both defendants have strongly denied any wrongdoing and promised that evidence will clear their names.